The Contentious Use of Wild Animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Dried parts of plants and animals used in traditional Chinese medicine. Photo: Vberger / Wikimedia Commons

Liz PY Chee vividly remembers her first visit to a bear farm. It was 2009 and Chee, who was working for an animal welfare group in Singapore, flew to Laos to tour a Chinese-owned facility. The animals Chee saw “were hardly recognizable as bears,” she later wrote, “because they had rubbed off most of their fur on the bars of the cages and had grown very long toenails by not using their feet.”

As on countless other bear farms in China and Southeast Asia, the bears were kept there for their bile. Bear bile – which is either “milked” through a catheter permanently inserted into the animals ‘gallbladder or extracted by sticking large needles into the animals’ belly – is popularly prescribed across the region for the treatment of a variety of diseases, most recently COVID-19 . It is also marketed as an all-round health tonic. Although there is a growing animal welfare and anti-bear farming movement in China, the industry remains powerful.

Seeing the suffering bears, Chee marveled at the cultural and historical forces that brought the animals there – a question that prompted her to conduct extensive research on veterinary medicine in China. In Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China, she describes her findings, many of which come from sources never before published in English. Chee, who is now a research fellow and lecturer at the National University of Singapore, also noted that even scientists in China have so far paid little attention to the history of veterinary medicine, despite the controversies that have come with it.

“If Chinese medicine retains an Achilles’ heel in the current century, it is the widespread belief that it is contributing to a holocaust among wild creatures,” writes Chee, “supporting a global criminal enterprise” of animal poaching and trafficking. In addition, such drugs are often condemned as “as ineffective as they are unethical” even by some Chinese doctors. Many of these products are at best medically useless, writes Chee, and in some cases even harmful.

Chinese veterinary advocates often cite the practice’s 2,000-year history. In Mao’s Bestiary, however, Chee shows that the roots of most animals’ use as ingredients in medicine are not as deeply anchored in Chinese culture as many believe. Instead, the industry as it exists today was specifically developed, expanded and promoted in the last century. Today it is more closely associated with politics and profit than with old culture and tradition. This revelation has important conservation and public health implications, argues Chee, because it leaves room for “opportunities for choice and change.”

Chee focuses on the development of veterinary medicine during the turbulent times of the emergence of modern China, from the 1950s to 1980s. These decades included the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and finally Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

Although animal medicines have a long history in China, Chee noted that their use in the past was nowhere near as high as it is today. In the “Compendium of the Materia Medica” from the 16th century, for example, around 400 animals were cited, while today more than 2,300 are listed in pharmacopoeias.

Many newly medicalized species exist only on distant continents, such as jaguars in South and Central America. Chee noted that China’s use of animals in traditional medicine is not solely based on Chinese innovation; Ideas, approaches and technologies from the Soviet Union, North Korea, Japan and the western world have strongly influenced the development of the industry. Although animal products still “have the aura of tradition”, writes Chee, most are actually products of a profit-oriented expansion.

Efforts to abolish traditional medicine and replace it with a science-based approach largely inspired by Japan began in the 1920s and continued into the early days of a communist government striving to build an industrialized economy. While researchers acknowledge that some particularly potent Chinese herbs were worth investigating to find their active ingredients, animal health products were “initially undervalued and underdeveloped” by the new regime as it expanded its pharmaceutical sector, writes Chee.

Traditional doctors, however, pushed back attempts to phase out their industry, arguing that the synergistic effects of the herbal, animal, and mineral ingredients of their practice were too complex to nail down in a laboratory. In order to appease both groups, the state pharmaceutical sector decided that doctors trained in Chinese and Western medicine should learn from each other in order to make Chinese medicine “scientific” and look for new innovations from tradition.

“Learning from the Soviet Union” was also a popular phrase in China at the time. Following the example of the USSR, China was particularly interested in producing its own medicines from local ingredients in order to be self-sufficient. Soviet interest in animal-based folk medicine and the USSR’s own practice of breeding deer for medicinal ingredients soon offered “a modern and scientific sanction for the Chinese fascination with animal drugs,” writes Chee.

During the rapid industrialization of the great leap forward, “both animals and plants were carried away into this nationwide project,” continues Chee. China expanded its exports of high-end pharmaceuticals like deer antlers, rhinoceros, and tiger bones, especially to Chinese expatriates. In order to achieve high quotas, the authorities encouraged the creation of “laboratory farms” to increase production. Entrepreneurs on these farms were also encouraged to find more uses for existing animal parts and to develop additional uses for new parts and species.

“Once a healing animal was bred, there was pressure or incentive to justify the use of all of its parts, regardless of previous traditions, which were often quite selective as to which part should actually be taken as medicine and for what purpose.” Chee writes. Medicine farms sprang up for a variety of other species, including geckos, ground beetles, scorpions, snakes, and seahorses.

Wildlife breeding was also portrayed as something for conservation because it supposedly spared wild animals from hunting. In fact, it usually had the opposite effect, stimulating the market and relying on hunters to replenish farm stocks, notes Chee. While not delving deep into the impact this had on animal populations inside and outside China, many sources today argue that the demand for traditional medicine nearly emptied the country’s forests of tigers, pangolins, and other coveted species.

During the purges and upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, exports of luxury medicines, such as the horn of rhinos, expanded to generate much-needed revenue. At home, however, a severe shortage of medical care and supplies led to an emphasis on “miracle cures” derived from cheaper, more ordinary animals.

Chicken blood therapy – “the direct injection of chicken blood (from live chickens) into the human body” – is representative of this time, writes Chee. The doctor who initiated the treatment claimed that chicken blood therapy could cure more than 100 diseases, and it was widely promoted across the country, becoming “the emblem of basic economic innovation” and “the expression of ‘red medicine’,” “Chee writes.

This practice ceased in 1968 when news surfaced that people were dying after being injected with chicken blood. But similar remedies soon took their place, including those using goose or duck blood, lizard eggs, or toad heads. These new remedies were marketed as magical cures for serious and otherwise untreatable diseases, including cancer – “a property that has become the standard in the commercialization of many animal medicines today,” writes Chee.

After Deng came to power in 1978, wildlife breeding and animal-assisted medicine became “even more popular as part of official farmer enrichment policies,” continues Chee. The government-sponsored bear bile industry – which was originally inspired by facilities in North Korea and continues to thrive today – was a major result of this era, as was the proliferation of tiger farming.

Political changes have also had a significant impact on the regulation of Chinese medicine and its impact on consumers and the environment. The Ministry of Forestry was given “decision-making power over wildlife healing animals,” writes Chee, “and would essentially manage China’s forests as quarrying sites.” Meanwhile, the Department of Health only had full regulatory control over patented drugs, allowing companies selling animal-based drugs to circumvent health or efficacy regulations and make extravagant, unchallenged claims about the healing value of their products.

Chinese medicine has globalized over the past three decades and animal products “continue to play a central, albeit increasingly problematic, role,” writes Chee. The industry has been attacked by the international media for its role in promoting species decline, and in China there are regular clashes between advocates of veterinary drugs and those who care about wildlife and conservation. “Many middle-class Chinese, both in the mainland and in the diaspora and within Chinese medicine itself, have been at the forefront of the fight to save endangered species from poaching and consumption,” says Chee.

“Mao’s Bestiary” went to press in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Chee writes in the introduction that the likely link between the occurrence of COVID-19 and wildlife is transforming the debate by turning the use of wildlife into one global public health problem.

Despite the undeniable threats posed by zoonotic diseases, traditional veterinary medicine remains an “immensely profitable and thus politically influential” force in China, she continues. As evidence of this, not only have Chinese authorities not banned veterinary medicine during the pandemic, but they have even promoted funds containing bear bile to treat COVID-19.

As for shaping the future of the industry to mitigate the threats to wildlife and humans, Chee is targeting Chinese consumers rather than officials who may choose to boycott animal-based medicines. There is a large and growing animal welfare movement in China so this could be more than a pipe dream. “Whether or not they will reinvent the pharmacology of Chinese medicine as a practice that is less dependent on animals, endangered or not,” she concludes, “remains a crucial question.”

This article was originally published by Undark. Read the original article.

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